I don’t like conflict. Not one bit. Even the slightest hint of confrontation turns my face beet red and demolishes the sweat-blocking powers of even the most clinical deodorant. If I had a therapist, I’m pretty sure she or he would say something to the effect of, “tell me more about that.”
So when I found myself face to face with another mom who clearly didn’t give two crackers about me or my wish to remain friction free, it was time to step up. I had a little boy to defend.
But first, let’s back up.
From the moment our son first shared floor space with other pint-sized wobbly crawlers, we’ve tried to teach the importance of sharing. “Friends share!” we’d say, prying a block from his chubby hand and placing it in the palm of a nearby toddler. “It’s Henry/ Harry/ Hank’s turn now!” we’d sing as we plucked his swaying body from a rocking horse.
Naturally, that emphasis on sharing continued as he grew from toddler to preschooler. Sand toys are communal. Sidewalk chalk is for everyone. Stickers? Go ahead, have three.
All this sharing seemed to be settling in pretty easily for our boy. So when another 4-year-old recently approached us at the pool, sorted through our toys, snatched a few items and fled, neither of us thought much of it.
Twenty minutes later, my son asked for his goggles. I looked across the pool and spied their familiar red and blue pattern on the other 4-year old’s face. Figuring twenty minutes was well within the acceptable limits of reclaiming a shared item, I walked up to his mom, smiled and told her that I was happy her son had so much fun with our toys. Then I mentioned that my son would love to wear his goggles now.
“He’s not done with them yet,” she said without even looking at me. “We’ll make sure you get them when he is.”
Remember that part about hating conflict? Yeah. My face reddened and my jaw dropped but I just nodded and started to turn away. Then I saw him. My son. He was standing ten feet away, goofy smile on his face and excitedly hopping from foot to foot, Millenium Falcon diving stick in one hand, Captain America in the other.
It was time to Mom Up. Those were our goggles. That we had shared. And now she was just dismissing me? No.
“Sorry, but we’d like to have our goggles now. Your son has had them for quite a while. If you’re still here when we’re finished, maybe he can use them again.”
Prickles of sweat on my neck.
She looked at me as if I had asked to swap eyeballs. Breathe. Then with an exaggerated eye roll she called over her son, ripped the goggles from his head and thrusted – yes, thrusted – them at me. “Have fun,” she deadpanned.
I couldn’t speak.
For the rest of the afternoon, I could feel her glare burning into my back whenever our watery paths crossed. What had I done wrong? What part of the sharing code had I broken?
Then I realized, not everyone defines sharing in the same way. Which, I guess, is understandable. Because sharing is weird. No adult would approach another adult at a coffee shop and say, “Hey, you’ve been using your computer quite a while. I’d like a turn.” We don’t flag down fancy cars because it’s time to let someone else behind the wheel. Yet we teach our kids from the very beginning to give up whatever toy they hold most dear to any pleading Ryder, Colby or Stella.
Then I also realized that I sometimes defer to sharing simply to avoid conflict. If a kid yells loud enough that he wants my son’s toy, I inevitably scuttle over to encourage J to hand it over even if he is deep into playing. Even if he very understandably doesn’t want to give it up.
I get the purpose of sharing – it’s a way to teach our kids empathy and compassion, to open their eyes and notice there are kids other than themselves in the world. And that’s a good thing. I’m not planning on curtailing our sharing practices any time soon. But when not everyone subscribes to the same set of sharing rules, things can get messy. And similarly, when I’m the one constantly forcing my son to give up his treasures, I’m not giving him the chance to learn how to resolve conflict. I’m just reinforcing my own need to avoid it. I’m also not giving him the chance to learn how to articulate his own needs and find his own solutions.
So I’m going to take this chance to look at how, why and when we share. And how to back off when another kid asks for my son’s toys. He needs the chance to figure out this crazy thing called sharing on his own – he’s certainly had enough practice. But most importantly, I’m going to try to remember that sharing isn’t simply avoiding conflict. And it doesn’t equate to giving up my son’s wants and needs entirely. There needs to be a give and take on both sides. And if you don’t live up to your side of the deal, you better believe I’m going to call you out. Just ignore the flop sweat, please. And thank you.